le morte darthur

The Sinister Merlin

Reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur through for the first time has been a thoroughly rewarding experience. I’ve made several discoveries, not so much in the content, but in my own understanding of the themes and characters of Arthurian literature. Malory, by condensing and connecting the vast assortment of romances he had access to, gives context to isolated incidents narrated in other sources. His approach is not all inclusive, but he succeeds in giving a satisfying individuality to his knights, largely by providing their histories and following them through to the end. As mentioned in my last post, I am particularly interested in his use (or sometimes avoidance) of the supernatural and this brings me to Merlin. I found Malory’s Merlin a sinister figure. This has made me aware of the fact that I have never really liked Merlin and that my dislike of him has prevented me from appreciating his reincarnations, including T. H. White’s Merlyn, Tolkien’s Gandalf and Rowling’s Dumbledore. While these latter figures are much more wholesome, they retain something of Merlin’s manipulative character, a negative trait that is startlingly apparent in Malory.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin is only present in person in the first four books, where he arranges the circumstances of Arthur’s birth and ascension, interferes briefly in the tale of Balin and Balan and is eventually imprisoned by Nenive at the start of book 4:

Then soon after the lady and Merlin departed. And by ways he showed her many wonders, and so came into Cornwall. And always he lay about to have her maidenhood, and she was ever passing weary of him and would have been delivered of him, for she was afraid of him for cause he was a devil’s son, and she could not be shift of him by no mean. And so on a time Merlin did show her in a rock where as was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone. So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do. And so she departed and left Merlin. (IV.1)

This passage is one of the most revealing, I feel, of Malory’s own attitude to Merlin. Nenive, rather than a seducer of Merlin who steals his magical knowledge and tricks him into the cave, is portrayed as a victim of Merlin’s lust. She is afraid of him, and this is significant, because no woman in Malory is afraid of a man who is anything but a villain. Several of Merlin’s achievements in the first four books are unexpectedly dark, Merlin:

  • Engineers the rape of Igraine by Uther by disguising him as her husband
  • Takes Arthur from his mother, who does not see him again until he is a man
  • Prophecies the birth of Mordred leading to Arthur’s own ‘massacre of the innocents’

For these acts he is accused by other Kings of witchcraft and several references are made to his paternity; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin’s father was an incubus. The fact that Arthur respects and ‘worships’ Merlin is contrasted with the suspicion other men have of him. His infernal parentage, while lending weight to his magical abilities, seems to taint his behavior towards women, and the treatment of noblewomen is a primary indicator of nobility throughout Malory. The very fact that Merlin is punished for his lust by imprisonment suggests a moral judgement on his character.

It could be argued that Merlin also does some good in Malory. His fostering out of Arthur could be read as protecting him until he was old enough to rule, and he does advise Arthur at one point to cease killing his enemies when he has already won the battle. However, his almost omniscient knowledge of events to come is highly problematic. He uses his foreknowledge to achieve his own goals, such as establishing Arthur as king, but does not prevent the tragedies he foresees. Even his awareness of his own downfall at Nenive’s hands is submitted to, rather than averted, a weakness that deprives Arthur of his counsel and assistance in the troubles to come.

Malory’s ordering of events in the cycle gets rid of Merlin fairly quickly, possibly because his prophecies make him something of a nuisance and because he does not fit into the new morality of courtly love that concerns much of the book. However, his role as magical intercessor is soon filled by Nenive herself, who becomes a sort of fairy-godmother character who arrives at the end of a tale to reward or punish, or reveal hidden information. She does not prophecy or involve herself in state affairs, like Merlin, but in the personal relationships between men and women, who are upheld to the codes of courtly love. Like Tryamour, she becomes the otherworldly patron of a worthy knight, Sir Pelleas, and when she arrives to insist on the innocence of Guinevere, Malory tells us; ‘for ever she did great goodness unto King Arthur and to all his knights by her sorcery and enchantments.’ (XVIII.8) A statement that is nowhere mirrored in descriptions of Merlin.

Although modern interpretations of Merlin have more frequently cast him as benevolent, affable character, they cannot escape the problem of his foreknowledge. The fact that Merlin knows Arthur and Camelot’s fate is central to his involvement in the story. When he uses this knowledge to interfere, it often brings up questions of consequentialism; are the means Merlin uses to bring about the Arthurian ‘golden age’ worth the ends? When Merlin fails to use his knowledge, such as informing Arthur of his incest only after it has occurred, is he equally guilty? Any interpretation of the Matter of Britain that includes Merlin has to deal with these questions and, in my opinion, he casts a very long shadow.

Skye M. W.

All quotes from Helen Cooper’s edition of the Winchester Manuscript for Oxford World’s Classics (1998)

Image: Detail of Merlin, Alan Lee


Approaching Arthur

I was very fortunate to be introduced to Arthur in what I consider the best possible way; as a child, listening to an audio book of Rosemary Manning’s Green Smoke, read in the sumptuous Welsh accent of Sian Phillips. Manning’s story is a frame tale, in which a young girl on holiday in Cornwall encounters a retired dragon living in a seaside cave. The dragon, who has been around since the time of Arthur, recounts episodes from Malory, interspersed with other English folk tales. The Arthurian stories are themselves reworked as folk tales and linked to the surrounding locality, including Tintagel and Bodmin Moor. I listened to and read this story over and over, so that the tales are deeply imprinted on my memory. I realise now that Manning was doing something very subtle and clever; returning Arthur to his homeland, and perhaps even to an older form of storytelling than the Romances or epics produced in the Middle Ages. As a slightly older child I read Bulfinch’s The Age of Chivalry (1858). Both writers used Malory as source, indeed Manning’s dragon sometimes quotes his most evocative lines. Arthur was so great an influence on my early experience of literature, that I find I am always drawn back to him. It is part of the reason I am pursuing medieval studies in the first place (the other being C. S. Lewis) and yet I am nervous of approaching the vast body of texts that make up this tradition.

Lately, I’ve decided I really can’t afford to skirt around the topic any longer and must make a considerable effort to get to grips with it. I’ve begun with Derek Pearsall’s Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (2003), which does exactly what it says on the cover, in an witty and insightful manner. The most helpful distinction Pearsall makes is between the English tradition, which focuses on Arthur as a national hero and even conqueror, and the French romances in which he is more of a background figure to the courtly love intrigues of Lancelot and Guinevere. Both explore the tragedy of the death of Arthur but while the Vulgate cycle (composed in monasteries) blames this on sexual transgression and the vanity of secular knighthood, English writers explore the human failings of the principal characters.

Having just started reading Malory (Helen Cooper’s Oxford World Classics edition) I’m impressed by his ability to include both streams of the Arthurian tradition and weave them into a whole. We often think of Arthurian characters as idealised, even archetypal figures but Marlory’s knights and kings are deeply flawed. He plays on the dramatic irony of his audience’s familiarity with the source material by having his characters spout morals that we know they will fail to live up to. I’m fascinated by the contrast between Gawain, who cannot seem to put a foot right, and Lancelot, who never loses a physical or moral battle and am keen to see how their later conflict is portrayed, because I feel it is this contrast; between worldly Gawain and holy Lancelot, that is really behind the downfall of Arthur more so than the treachery of Mordred, which was anticipated from the beginning.

There is another thread to the Arthurian tradition that is only touched on by Pearsall, and that is the supernatural elements it inherits from Breton lais and Welsh mythology. These are the features that intrigue me personally; Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Nenive/Vivienne/The Lady of the Lake and various other warlocks and enchantresses who pop up throughout the texts. I’m pleased to find that Malory preserves these, and although he seems to get confused as to which magical lady is which sometimes, the effect is that there are a fair few women in Le Morte Darthur with personal agency. Merlin, thankfully, is shut away in his rock fairly early in the book and Nenive assumes his role as deus ex machina, resolving difficult situations with magical intervention. She’s not altogether benign, but then neither was Merlin. I’m fascinated by the way magic is used in Morte Darthur, where enchantment is as commonplace as violence, and just as morally ambiguous.

I’m glad I’ve decided to return to these texts and explore them more thoroughly, because they still retain the power to enchant me. I love the combination of quirky humor (not always intentional), rollicking adventure and gentle pathos in Malory, and I look forward to reading later works inspired by him to see how these are developed.

Image: The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Edward Burne-Jones, 1889.